CA’s New Mask Mandate Is Tougher Than The CDC’s: How They Differ

CALIFORNIA — Californians who are fully vaccinated can officially walk among others without their masks — except at a crowded event, according to California’s new face mask guidance.

But unvaccinated residents must still wear face coverings while walking around outdoors “any time physical distancing cannot be maintained,” the state said.

The policy differs slightly from the guidance offered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week. Those guidelines said that unvaccinated people can safely walk outside or attend a small gathering outdoors with others who are vaccinated. The CDC added that dining outdoors at a restaurant without a mask while unvaccinated is “less safe. ”

The difference between state and CDC guidance will influence how counties change their own mask mandates, which affects how businesses and residents are allowed to interact with the public.

“For example, if you are not fully vaccinated and stop to have a prolonged conversation, or you are walking on a crowded sidewalk passing many people, you will want to put that mask on,” Dr. Susan Philip, San Francisco’s acting health officer, said Monday.

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San Francisco on Monday updated its mask mandate, which mostly aligns with California’s guidance. That should be an incentive for residents to get vaccinated, local health officials said.

“Because their risk level is significantly lower, vaccinated people now have more latitude and do not need to wear a mask for most outdoor activities other than those that are crowded,” she said.

The county’s mandate said that unvaccinated people can safely walk or run outside while maintaining distance from others. But simply passing someone without a mask is no longer considered risky, it said.

“You will no longer need to pull up your mask when simply passing others by on a sidewalk or trail as the transient passing of people is not a risk of transmission,” Philip said.

California said that unvaccinated people must still wear a face covering “any time physical distancing cannot be maintained” outdoors, a guideline that has not changed.

Some experts suggested that California’s mask rules are too strict. Dr. Monica Gandhi, a professor of medicine at the University of San Francisco, told several news outlets that California’s mask mandate could backfire.

“Passing someone on the street is a safe activity,” even for those who are unmasked and unvaccinated, Gandhi told The Mercury News. She further suggested that making rules too complex could have the opposite effect, The Mercury News reported.

“We are in this very strange mixed period right now,” she told the newspaper. “This mixed period becomes more confusing when our public health guidelines aren’t strictly based on biology and data and science.”

Other experts previously rallied behind the state’s outdoor mask mandates.

“We have 30 of the 50 states showing an uptick in cases. We’re averaging over 65,000 new cases a day. We’ve got a more infectious variant that is now the dominant strain. The bottom line is it’s not clear what direction the United States is going in,” Dr. John Swartzberg, an infectious disease expert at the University of California, Berkeley told the San Francisco Chronicle on April 23. “This would be an imprudent time to get rid of mask mandates.”

Some experts said the mandates are simply confusing for people to follow.

“How can I tell who is vaccinated and who is not? When I’m at an outdoor restaurant, how can I tell if — what is a crowded place? Is a farmers market in summer crowded? How do I define crowded as a single person? Also, how could the CDC release something that is one size fits all?” epidemiologist Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics sciences at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, told CNN.

“How could we send this message to everybody across the U.S. that it’s safe, and you’re equally safe irrespective of your vaccination level? What about variants? We have the new variants that are making the vaccines less effective, but the masks do protect from these variants. So why are we sending this message saying, ‘It’s all clear for ditching the mask and encouraging people not to wear the mask?'” he added.

Growing evidence suggested that the chance of outdoor transmission of respiratory viral infections, including coronavirus, is low, but it isn’t zero.

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The CDC and CDPH still recommends that vaccinated people wear masks outdoors at concerts, festivals and parades where unvaccinated people may be in attendance.

“We will continue to recommend this until widespread vaccination is achieved,” CDC Director Rochell Walensky said last week.

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